The best writers are always stretching themselves, looking for challenges. Some do this by trying different genres. After nine books of realistic fiction (and two of futuristic sci-fi) for middle years and YA readers, Winnipeg-based Colleen Nelson has, within a year, published books in two genres new to her – a picture book, Teaching Mrs. Muddle, and a YA fantasy novel, The Life and Deaths of Frankie D.
The Life and Deaths of Frankie D. follows a 17-year-old girl who is dealing with serious problems. Nelson describes her as “a girl battling a lot of demons. She was abandoned in an alley as a child and has no memory about her past. The only clue to her identity lies in a rare skin condition called lamellar ichythosis, which gives her dry, flaky skin that looks reptilian.”
Things start to get really interesting for Frankie when she starts dreaming of a 100-year-old carnival sideshow and a performer known as Alligator Girl. The dreams start to interfere with real life and, while Frankie is pretty tough, she has to deal with circumstances far beyond her comfort level.
One might ask what led Nelson to bring such an interesting setting into the story. As it turned out, she was inspired by a Winnipeg institution. Nelson describes being at a historic theatre in Winnipeg called the Metropolitan. “It’s a gorgeous building, completely refurbished, but with all the original character.” It was there that her mind started wandering, and she began building this unique, engaging story.
But Nelson then had to switch gears for Teaching Mrs. Muddle, a story about Kayla’s first day of kindergarten. It is certainly a far cry from dreaming about carnival sideshows.
Apparently, working on a children’s book had been in the back of Nelson’s mind for a long time.
“When I first started writing 16 years ago, I wanted to write children’s books,” she says. “Then I realized how difficult it is to write a good one and switched to young adult and middle grade.”
She worked on Teaching Mrs. Muddle for a while and learned a lot about the process of writing children’s books. “It’s a totally different type of storytelling compared to novels,” she says.
Naturally, a major difference between working on a YA novel and a picture book would be the artwork. That is where Alice Carter joins the story.
An experienced and seasoned children’s book artist, Carter enjoys working in the medium. “I love the limitless possibilities of illustrating picture books,” she says. “There are so many ways to tell a story within a book’s pages; use of colour, interesting compositions, secondary stories happening in the background, and on and on.”
And the first time she read the manuscript for Teaching Mrs. Muddle, she knew this was the story for her. “I also love filling my illustrations with lots of amusing details, and having a story set in a school allowed me to have a lot of fun with that,” she says.
For Nelson, working on two books that are so dissimilar from each other was an interesting experience. “Honestly, every book is different,” she says. “They all have their challenges.”